|William Heffernan: A Time Gone By|
Akashic (Trade Paperback), ISBN 1-888451-74-2
When someone murdered Judge Wallace Reed back in 1945, Jake Downing was a rookie NYPD cop on the fact track to make homicide detective. A prominent Democrat marked for future glory by his party, and a highly respected judicial figure married to an astonishingly beautiful and much younger wife, Judge Reed seemed to possess everything to live for. But as Downing and his vastly more experienced partner, Jimmy Finn, start digging, the city's political boss, Manny Troy, pressures them to opt for the easy solution -- that a small-time gangster, Louie Grosso, killed Reed.
The truth, of course, proves much more complicated -- this is, after all, neo-noir. Behind the benign, reputable mask of the dead man, the two cops soon discover, lurked a corrupt sadist involved in all sorts of sleazy manipulations, who brutalized his young wife. The detectives quickly find, also, that someone manufactured the cut-and-dried evidence against Grosso -- and clumsily at that.
The unmourning widow, Cynthia -- Cyn -- Reed, the femme fatale of the piece, complicates matters by swiftly enmeshes the young Jake Downing in her wiles and her bedsheets. At last, and after many intricacies, the two cops yield to the pressure and permit Grosso to go to the electric chair for the crime he didn't commit, consoling themselves with the knowledge that he certainly committed a half-dozen other, mob-related murders.
But twenty years later, Jake, now Chief of Detectives Downing -- a position he owes in part to his acquiescence to political "reality" two decades before -- decides to reopen the case. Fighting against new pressures to let the dead past simply stay buried, he enlists the retired Jimmy Finn and Jake's own lover, an assistant coroner, to revisit old territory, painfully reliving his torrid affair with the ambiguous Cyn Reed.
This book triumphs on many different levels. It evokes the genuine noir spirit. Fittingly, even the good guys are not exactly spotless. Jimmy Finn engaged in habitual police brutality (along with most of the rest of the 1940s NYPD) and Jake conducted his adulterous affair with Cyn during the final stages of his wife's pregnancy with their first child.
The out-and-out bad guys are of course sleazebags of the scummiest kind. Heffernen shines in the creation of ghastly characters like Manny Troy, union leader and mobster Owney Ryan, and Cyn's petty-hoodlum brother Oliver. After an extended encounter with any of them one finds oneself desperately yearning for a shower. Cyn herself, as befits a femme fatale figure, hides a murky past not quite covered by her public veneer of respectability. The author also succeeds in creating genuine ethical problems Jake must face during his later investigation that go far beyond the crime itself and his part in the cover-up.
Deliciously convoluted and neatly written (I especially liked the use of first- and third-person narratives to distinguish the 1940s and 1970s Jake Downings), A Time Gone By emphatically merits your time.
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